Studio Apartment #10: Scott Rosenberg, aka Scott Pinkmountain
Scott Rosenberg is an artist who leaves no stone unturned. He has spent two decades composing and performing as an avant-garde musician, a songwriter, home-recorder, and in recent years, the mastermind behind two podcasts. Listening to even a single episode of The History Channeler reveals the fusion of his talents; here music and sounds are stitched together by the musings of a literary mind that ignores borders and gets to the heart of what really matters. In 2011, Scott moved from Oakland to Joshua Tree, California. Since the move, he has transformed his garage into a studio that serves as both a retreat and a launch pad to the world. His last album No Country Music, backed by his Golden Bolts ensemble, is available to download or as a very limited vinyl letterpress edition via Rosenberg’s Bandcamp.
Jon: You’ve made a variety of music under different names. Could you give us a brief overview of your various projects before we dive into things?
Scott: Over the last twenty years, my work has ranged from avant-garde solo improvised contrabass clarinet music, free jazz and contemporary large ensemble composition to traditional folk and country songwriting, heavy psych and prog rock, Afro-influenced percussion-driven instrumental music and highly arranged studio ‘pop’ (for lack of a better word). Most of my earlier work on woodwinds and as an experimental composer was released as Scott Rosenberg (my real last name). When I started writing and performing songs, the change in style and function of the music felt like it demanded a change in public persona, so I started using the name Pinkmountain. Some of my bands in the last decade have included P.A.F., Pink Mountain, EYES and The Golden Bolts.
To someone just coming across my work, I probably look a little schizophrenic. I could go into all kinds of justifications for how the different types of music are related conceptually and sonically, and the various reasons for why my work has changed over the years, but what it really comes down to is that I’ve never held back from pursuing something I was interested in, even if it wasn’t necessarily a good idea for my ‘career.’ I’ve come to view the whole idea of using the word ‘career’ in the context of human creativity to be distasteful (to put it mildly).
Describe your basic live-work studio situation, including any constraints or creative bonuses. Tell us the story of how you created your space.
My studio is a converted two-car garage. It’s right across the backyard from my house. I live out in the Mojave Desert near Joshua Tree. It’s pretty remote. Three miles down a one-lane dirt road. There are no neighbors in direct line of sight and essentially no concern about noise — either coming in or going out. Sometimes, if the wind is really bad or a plane is flying overhead, I suppose there could be a problem, but it wasn’t enough of a concern to bother soundproofing the building.
When we were looking for a house, a separate out-building for a studio was on the mandatory list, and fortunately, it’s pretty common out here. The garage had unfinished walls, which was ideal. The previous owner had added on a little storage room at one end of the garage, so there was already a control room built on with a big window (from the former exterior wall) looking into the main room. We cut in a bunch of windows, finished the walls, added double glass between the studio and control room, finished that control room wall at an angle and that’s pretty much it. It’s not a high-end situation, but it sounds good and it’s a big, flexible open room.
We placed the windows so that there’s a view of something special — boulders or mountains — from anywhere you’re set up. I’m sure I’ll wind up treating the walls at some point down the line, just to warm up the sound of the room, but it works for now. The main draw of the space is the location. It’s quiet, it’s beautiful, I can walk out the front door and wander off on a hike in any direction. No distractions. My studio’s not about the gear or the drum silo or the producer’s couch. It’s about being able to track with the windows open and my dog at my feet, if necessary.
Describe the basic layout of your room/studio.
An open rectangle with peaked ceiling and a small control room.
What is the main program or device you use to record in your space?
I use my Digi 002 to ProTools 10 most often. Also, I have a TASCAM 388, which I’ve made a bunch of records on. I love the sound of that thing. Ideally, I’d track all basics to that and transfer to PT for overdubs. The convenience and affordability of PT often wins out, especially if I’m tracking alone, or doing something that I need to turn around quickly. I’m not thrilled about this, to be honest. I also have a 4-track cassette unit that I like. I mean, I hate it. It’s idiotic and semi-functional, but I’m really happy with the sound I get from it. Basically, I don’t like the super-clear high end of digital, especially on drums.
How linked is your recording process with your writing process?
It really varies from project to project. I have done stuff that was built in layers in Protools — it could only have been made that way. For instance, I’ll record myself playing drums, then run to the computer, find a decent four bar loop (I don’t like playing to a mechanized click), then track some bass until I find a part that works. Then add guitar. Then maybe cut and paste some sections and build a structure, then start layering on that. Adding vocals and horns and whatever else I can until I’ve got a song. Then that’s either a demo or, if I can get away with it, a finished song.
The ability to be able to try parts out on tape has become such an integral part of my writing that I probably rely on it too much. Instead of sitting down with a guitar and singing a horn line while I play the chords, writing down that horn line, harmonizing it, then tracking those finished charts, I roll tape over basics with the horn in my mouth until I improvise a melody I like, and I can stitch that together in little fragments until I’ve got a whole song arranged, then I transcribe the finished results of that so it can be harmonized and eventually performed live. It’s pretty backwards in some ways, but the results are more feel-based.
Right now, as I’m typing this, I’m bouncing tracks from a session I produced. It was entirely improvised by a group of musicians I invited into the studio. Now I’ll listen back, pick the best sections, edit it and mix it. Is that improvisation with no integral use of the recording process? Is it some combination of improvisation in the room and composition through the recording process? Any time you’re making choices where you factor in some large picture, you’re composing. Mic placement, EQ, hitting record, those are all compositional decisions linked to the recording process as far as I’m concerned.
Talk about your process of making the music you’re working on right now.
Well, my recent recording work is for a podcast that incorporates music and words. It’s called The History Channeler. It’s pretty raw. I record the music live in one room, minimal isolation, zero overdubs, no headphones, everyone has eye contact. This is always my favorite way to record. It’s not often possible, but if it is, and I chose not to do it, there’d better be a good reason. The results I’ve gotten with playing live in the room with other musicians pretty much have always trumped my efforts at layered overdubbing (if the end result is supposed to sound like a group of people playing together, and not say a sound sculpture or audio landscape). Plus it’s just way more fun.
Do you draw inspiration from other mediums besides music? Why is this important to your process?
Honestly, I don’t know anymore. When I was younger and more involved in avant-garde music, the answer would have been yes. I was into graphic scores, interpreting texts, applying non-musical ideas and philosophies to my musical practice. In the past ten or twelve years, I’ve just tried to play the music that I hear in my head. I love being around artists from other mediums and it’s pretty much my favorite thing to talk about process, creativity, craft and practice with makers of all kinds, plus I write a lot, which I’m sure affects my brain in some way, but music can feel weirdly pure and off in a world of its own. I’m not talking about lyric-writing here, which can’t help but be influenced by things I read. I’m talking strictly about the instrumental music I work with.
I would say my music is far more influenced by other music I hear and the greater context of my life. I am definitely not seeking to play some kind of ‘desert’ music, but the daily lived experience of being surrounded by a lot of silence and space helps me be more relaxed and focused in my creative work. Likewise, leaving the city freed up those parts of my brain that were previously occupied with things like the chaos and mental crowding of other people, stress about traffic, fear of being jumped, etc. I think our art can’t help but express our lived experience. I recontextualized my life and I’m sure my music has changed because of it.
Describe a favorite instrument or item of hardware / software and why it is important to your recordings.
I have been thinking really hard about this one. Pretty much all of my gear is a hand-me-down, or broken or lost and found or wounded or cheapo. My tenor saxophone has some recurring rod illness. My favorite guitar is an 80’s Mexican strat that someone gave me. I found my Fender Rhodes on the street in Oakland. I spent too much on a Wurlitzer, then spent another too much to have it worked on by a very fancy Los Angeles repairman and it still sounds crappy. My Hammond doesn’t have a Leslie or even an external out. My tape machine works when it wants to. I found a Moog Satellite at a flea market recently for $100, and it turns out it needs $400 just to maybe get it up and running (It’s been at the repair shop since May). Any outboard gear or pre-amps I’ve got are either bottom end or what a friend was getting rid of to upgrade.
I’m just not a gear guy, is what I’m trying to say. Recently, I did buy a Silvertone 1484 amp at a used music shop in Sheridan, WY. It sounded fantastic when I played it in the store and it looks amazing. Maybe this will be my new favorite piece of gear? Or more likely, I’ll get it home and discover its fatal flaw. I own a contrabass clarinet and a sopranino saxophone which fifteen years ago, would have been my favorites. I used to play them a lot. Along with my other saxophones, I can create a pretty full ensemble for arrangements. I haven’t played the clarinet in years, but I learned the hard way never to sell instruments, so I can’t let it go. I used to have a sixties Fender Jaguar, a beautiful green Gibson SG, and a really unique custom double humbucker guitar. I sold them all twenty years ago and still kick myself today for having done so.
I also love microphones. I’m not wealthy enough to really geek out on a huge mic collection, but I’ve got a few nice mics, nothing crazy expensive, but good enough. I try to buy versatile mics so I can get the most for my money. But I’ll also use a cheap Radio Shack mic next to a Neumann because I’m looking for an interesting sound more than an expensive sound. Generally, when I need a new piece of gear, I ask my friends, engineer Eli Crews or percussionist/gear whiz Gino Robair, and just buy whatever they recommend.
How do you like to organize your recording process. Talk about the way you like to sequence [the recording of] your tracks. In other words, do you prefer to begin with lyrics, or a beat, a click track, a chord progression. How do make decisions about what to add next? Do you have a general method? Is it different every time? Is it completely different every time or do generally follow some type of pattern?
Over the years, I have intentionally disrupted my process to see if I can yield different results. So after I finished a really big album I made called The Full Sun [Howells Transmitter], I stepped back and asked myself, “What was the pattern you were using to make these songs? What’s missing?” That record was written almost entirely lyrics-first or lyrics/melody/chords simultaneously. Then the songs were orchestrated, built up, layered, mostly on paper. Then those arrangements were recorded and expanded or edited in the studio.
For the follow up album, The Black Sun, I said, “Okay, percussion and rhythm were the last things you thought about when you made the previous record, so now they’re going to be first.” So I brought in a friend of mine and had him build percussion tracks to tape, then I used those tracks as the foundation for composing all the music, and ended with the lyrics and vocal melodies. I just completely inverted the process. In many ways, I preferred that approach to songwriting. It totally liberated me from so many of my habits. On The Black Sun I was able to almost entirely avoid strummed guitar and rock backbeat. The structures of the songs are different than what I usually used. I didn’t even know the chord progressions for the songs. I was working with riffs and melodies and often didn’t pay attention to names of pitches or scales. I just completely followed my ear. It was a huge learning experience for me as a musician. Extremely freeing. Since then, I’ve also written really simple folk tunes with strummed guitar and C major chords in country two-step.
What about that songwriter record you mentioned earlier?
I spent a ten day residency alone in a cabin in northern Montana with no running water, phone or electricity. Just a guitar, paper and a handheld recorder, doing nothing but writing songs. I brought back those demos and recorded them by myself in my home studio on cassette 4-track with live vocals and guitar and overdubbed arrangements, mostly of 2 tenor saxophones. They are a good example of where I’m at these days.